People go through phases in life. Sometimes they are very faithful in their church attendance. Sometimes they are less faithful. When people go through a phase in life that causes them to stray from church, they often do not realize how much time has elapsed since they last attended. The phase might have started as a short absence due to an illness, or perhaps a change in work schedule, but the more time that goes by, the easier it is for a short term absentee to become a long term absentee. A well timed and uplifting visit from a caring deacon or other lay person can help absentees know they are missed and encourage them to return to church.
Before going to visit an absentee, we should pray to God for wisdom to respond to whatever they may say. We should also pray that the individual will receive the visit with joy instead of embarrassment.
Make an appointment if the visit will be at the person’s home, few people like someone to drop by unannounced. In some situations, it might be appropriate to stop by their place of employment instead of their home. In such situations, make sure not to create a situation that will cause them difficulties with their supervisor. If one is sensitive to the Spirit, it is also possible to turn a causal encounter with an absentee in the community into an opportunity for a kind invitation for them to return to church.
Remember that the primary motive for speaking to an absentee is to express concern and let them know they have been missed at church. Though difficult issues may come up in the conversation, the primary motive is not to “fix a problem.” If significant issues come up about why they have not been in church, schedule a longer period of time at some later date to discuss those issues with the person instead of making the initial contact long and protracted. The obvious exception would be if they have said in advance that they have significant issues and want to talk specifically about them during the visit.
Sometimes it is better to invite an absentee to lunch first or to attend a concert or play together and just reconnect with them on a personal level first. Then a second contact can be made letting them know how much they have been missed at church. Never condemn people for not coming to church. They may have a legitimate reason for not coming. The goal should be to find out what that reason is and see if it can be resolved.
During the visit seek to answer any questions that may come up. Perhaps something happened during a worship service that they did not understand and that made them hesitant to come back.
Offer to sit with them when they come back to church. They may feel less self conscious than just showing up after a long absence and sitting alone. Encourage others to warmly welcome the person back when he or she arrives.
Be persistent. Many people have filled their lives with other things and it may take time for them to readjust their schedule enough to find time to come back to church. Others have significant emotional or spiritual baggage they are dealing with and it may take a while for them to work through it and be comfortable coming to church. Extend repeated invitations over a period of time without being pushy at any particular point.
Perhaps most important, remain friends whether they return to church or not. Since people go through phases in life, they may not yet be ready to return to church. When they are ready, they will remember who showed real friendship to them. When the time is right absentees will return to church.
This is an excerpt from the book, Developing Leadership Teams in the Bivocational Church, published by CrossBooks, a division of Lifeway. The book contains six easy to use lessons to train lay people to assist their pastor in ministry.